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The Return of Tracy Chapman

The folk-rock singer launches a world tour to promote fourth CD

ALTHOUGH the recent Beatles blitz is making it hard to get past the ''B'' section in record stores these days, listeners who do may be surprised to find that singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman has quietly released a new album.

They may also be surprised to discover that ''New Beginning'' (Elektra) is her fourth to date, right behind 1992's ''Matters of the Heart,'' 1989's ''Crossroads,'' and her wildly successful self-titled debut from 1988.

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That first album, a collection of socially conscious folk-rock songs, featured the singles ''Fast Car'' and ''Talkin' Bout a Revolution'' and took pop-music by storm when it sold millions of copies worldwide and helped the unknown artist win three Grammy awards.

With it she brought a new voice to the plight of those who are poor and discriminated against - and a deep, expressive voice at that. Her poignant lyrics and simple acoustic arrangements were able to grab the attention of listeners at a time when Tiffany, Whitney Houston, and George Michael were all the rage.

Since then, Chapman has stayed out of the limelight for the most part. In the early '90s she moved to San Francisco from her college town of Boston, where she had performed in coffee houses and on the streets of nearby Cambridge, Mass., before achieving stardom.

Chapman came back to the Boston area recently to launch her latest world tour. She did not disappoint the adoring, sold-out crowd at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, playing almost all the by-now-well-known songs from her first album, plus engaging versions of her new and more recent tunes.

She opened with the new album's title track, an uptempo song which, in keeping with her themes, chides, ''The whole world's broke and it ain't worth fixing/ It's time to start all over make a new beginning.''

Those who would question Chapman's staying power should see her in concert. Her fans shout marriage proposals to her, and embrace every love song and socially relevant tune she sings.

Chapman helps them out by bringing well-focused energy and vocal range to her often serious, thoughtful songs. And she seems at ease with the hordes as well. Before playing ''Freedom Now,'' her long-standing tribute to South African leader Nelson Mandela, she took time to talk with the audience - something the shy performer has gotten better at over the years. ''It's really great to be here,'' she told the fans, explaining that, given the title of her new album, she chose to kick things off in ''the place where everything started for me.''

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During the two-hour show, Chapman showcased a range of songs from ''New Beginning,'' a solid, contemplative collection that includes tunes about relationships and the environment.

Highlights were ''Heaven's Here on Earth,'' with its talk of faith and compassion; ''The Promise,'' a soft love song that benefits from the richness of Chapman's alto tones; and the bluesy ''Give Me One Reason to Stay,'' the first single off the album. Backing up Chapman is a new band of Bay-area musicians, most of whom also appear on the recent album. Their playing was strong and seamless, but Chapman really shone when she played unaccompanied. One such moment came mid-show when she sang an a cappella version of the moving ''Amazing Grace.''

She also soloed on ''All That You Have Is Your Soul,'' a song about values from ''Crossroads.'' It was likely inspired by her mother, a single parent who raised Chapman and her sister in Cleveland.

But the evening was dominated by her more recognizable 1988 ditties, including ''Fast Car,'' an evocative song about the struggle to get out of poverty, the reggae-flavored ''She's Got Her Ticket,'' and the materialism-driven ''Mountains O' Things.''

The exclamation point came with the encore, when Chapman, who had been holding out the rocking ''Talkin' Bout a Revolution,'' unleashed a brilliant version of it that brought the audience to its feet singing and dancing. She wrapped things up with Tina Turner's ''Proud Mary'' - a fitting end to a concert that demonstrated Chapman is on the way to becoming a classic herself.

* Chapman's tour continues: Dec. 12 at Herbst Theatre, San Francisco, Calif.; Dec. 13, Wadsworth Theatre, Los Angeles; Dec. 15, Soreng Hall, Eugene, Ore.; Dec. 16, Aladdin Theatre, Portland, Ore.; and Dec. 17, Meaney Hall, Seattle.

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